Mali: Submit Or We’ll Hurt Ourselves

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July 29, 2022: The military government is now threatening to force the 15,000 UN peacekeepers out of the country unless the UN agrees to give the Mali military government control over what the peacekeepers can do. The government is particularly angry at the way the peacekeepers report on atrocities committed by Mali security forces as well as the Russian Wagner Group military contractors.

The government forced the French and G5 peacekeepers out by the end of 2021. It was believed that Mali would prefer to keep the 13,500 UN peacekeepers that maintains government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consists of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. Currently the foreign contingent is about a thousand German troops.

There is growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that.

Once the UN voted to maintain the Mali peacekeeping force for another year the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and threatening to expel all of them. The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months.

The UN threatens to withdraw its peacekeepers because Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations. Russia is under severe economic sanctions because of its recent Ukraine invasion but Mali gets around that by paying Russia in gold. Mali is a major producer of gold and Russia has a large gold stockpile for emergencies. Russia will accept gold for the weapons and Wagner Group contractors. Russia also supplies pilots and maintainers for the eight Russian helicopters Mali has received since 2017. Most of the helicopters are flown by Russian pilots with a Mali co-pilot who is learning how to operate the new helicopters.

Wagner Group personnel began arriving in mid-December 2021. The government had already begun construction of a Wagner Group base outside the capital airport. The Wagner Group personnel and additional weapons arrived in Russian military transports. Soon small contingents of Wagner Group men moved to the north, occupying base facilities recently abandoned by the French peacekeepers. The Warner men were accompanied by a larger number of Mali Army troops, who would receive advice and hands-on instruction on how to carry out operations successfully.

Wagner Group operations use Russian methods, which involve terrorizing civilians believed cooperating with Islamic terrorists. Wagner Group operates mainly in central Mali, where Wagner Group men accompany Mali troops on surprise attacks, often in towns where Islamic terrorists are known to be active. Russian transport helicopters are often used to carry the ground assault force. Mali troops speak the local languages and are better able to spot known or suspected Islamic terrorists. The Wagner Group men, most of them veterans of Russian special operations or airborne units, have combat experience and pass that on to the Malian forces. This produces thousands of civilian casualties. This is one reason for UN threats to withdraw all peacekeepers, who are essential to keeping the north under government control. This is mainly because of the Wagner Group, which has been accused of using unacceptable (to the UN) tactics. The Russian presence threatens to end most foreign aid, including the 13,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers that have policed the north since 2013. This is where most of the Islamic terrorist and ethnic conflict has always been found. Since 2018 a lot of the violence has moved south to central Mali and the three-border area where the Mali army and tribal militias take most of the casualties.

A month ago, the UN voted to keep the peacekeepers in Mali for another year. In 2018 the UN began planning to reduce and ultimately end the Mali peacekeeping force, especially if there is not more progress in Mali. Being a peacekeeper can be a dangerous job, especially in Mali where peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 were over 500 dead and wounded. Mali is the most dangerous peacekeeping operation the UN operates. Losses were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Since 2015 Islamic terrorist operations, mainly in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso left 25,000 locals (civilians and security forces) dead and forty percent of those deaths occurred in Mali. In response to the terrorist threat France supplied an additional counterterrorism force (Operation Barkhane). These 5,100 French counterterrorism troops were always separate from the UN Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. UN peacekeepers mainly defend and are rarely given permission to search and destroy. Since 2018 popular support for Barkhane in France declined and that led to efforts to get other nations to replace the French force completely or partially. Because of all this, the official end of Barkhane is not surprising. It was not a matter of if, but when. Western nations have long contributed small contingents who operate transport helicopters and surveillance UAVs. Sometimes they send small teams of special operations troops.

France has been reducing its counter-terrorism forces since 2018 and trying to replace them with special operations troops from African nations also threatened by the growth of Islamic terrorism in Africa during the last decade. The local G5 Sahel counterterrorism force was seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) and is capable of dealing with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel, which is the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert that extends across most of Africa. The problem is that the least effective G5 contingent comes from Mali, which has long had a reputation for the least effective military in the area,

G5 began operations in early 2018 after three years of planning and preparation. In late 2016 the countries involved agreed on the details of G5. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force was to be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West mainly uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. The G5 force has been most active in the three borders area (where borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet) and found itself spending more and more time in this terrorist hotspot. A successful G5 Force would enable France to shrink and eventually disband the force of 4,000 French troops it has deployed in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in Mali. Increasingly, central Mali is where there has been more and more Islamic terror group activity, not all of it violent.

The Russian presence led Mali to withdraw from the G5 force as well as ordering all French counterterrorism forces out. The other G5 members saw that as the end of the G5 force. The growing Russian presence is what threatens the continued presence of the peacekeepers. This is because the UN presence also enables investigations of alleged atrocities committed by Mali soldiers or police. This has been a problem for decades and led to the 2011 rebellion in the north that in turn led to a military coup in Mali and the military intervention of France to keep the north part of Mali.

The UN peacekeeper presence means the UN is able to investigate the growing number of incidents where the army is accused of terrorizing civilians in Central and northern Mali, usually because the civilians were suspected of supporting Islamic terrorists or tribal militias that had clashed with soldiers. The military government can now block some of those investigations because Russia will use its UN veto to block certain investigations.

The military government expulsion of French troops and the French ambassador caused economic sanctions to be imposed. The officers running the military government seem unconcerned because they have access to income from Mali gold mines. Mali also has rich farmland in the south and exports a lot of food. There is a desert and semi-desert area north of the Niger river that has less than ten percent of the population and causes a disproportionate number of problems. Most of the northerners are Tuareg and a smaller number of Arabs. Both of these groups are ethnically different from the 90 percent of the 20 million Malians living in the well-watered south. The only reason the ethnically different north is part of Mali is because, when France organized its Mali colony, it incorporated the northerners because to the north of Mali were Arab majority nations that did not want more of those troublesome Tuaregs. The black African Mali majority does not want to cut the north loose, as many Tuareg want, because the northerners would still be a problem for Mali. The northerners are better fighters and have defied southern control since Mali became independent in the 1960s. Historically the Tuareg were responsible for many raids on the more populous and prosperous south.

The Tuaregs have been relatively quiet since a peace agreement was signed in 2015. Mali governments, especially the new military one, have not upheld their part of the deal and now that the peacekeepers are gone or apparently going, the Tuaregs threaten to renew their war with the government.

This northern problem kept Mali from achieving peace and prosperity. In 2021 the situation got worse when there was another military coup. This one was an internal dispute among army officers upset about corrupt civilian members of the interim government and the prospect of the army losing power after new elections. Since the May 2021 coup foreign donors have warned that most of the foreign aid will stop coming if Mali does not carry out a significant reduction in corruption, government ineffectiveness and overall instability. None of these three military takeovers were about corruption, but rather anger at the corrupt politicians stealing money meant to finance operations against Islamic terrorist and separatist minorities in the north. The colonels running the current military government are unwilling to step down and are trying to make it on their own, despite the large number of UN peacekeepers and French troops who have long kept the Islamic terrorist problem up north under control.

For countries dependent on foreign trade and foreign aid, ignoring what the trading partners and aid donors think is a no-win situation. The trade partners can take their business elsewhere, where there are fewer problems. For the foreign aid groups, they are faced with a global situation where need far exceeds the aid available. That has led to triage, in which recipient nations or regions that use the aid less effectively, usually by diverting much of it to corrupt rulers or rebel leaders, get less. A military coup is usually a sign of problems and the threat of more economic and diplomatic problems.

By 2022 most foreign aid was gone and Mali was bankrupt, but the military government was not. The threats from the military said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid. The Mali military government is spending at least $10.8 million a month to pay for a thousand Wagner Group military contractors, Wagner Group also provides media and political support to local governments that hire them. An example of this is Russia and the Mali coup leaders both accusing the French of sustaining colonial rule. This angle serves the coup leaders and Wagner because it makes it patriotic to expel some contingents of European troops. Wagner is also foreign, but they have been hired by the coup government and are thus considered serving Mali, not practicing some form of colonialism. French and foreign donor efforts against corruption are portrayed by the corrupt coup leaders as another example of French colonialism. This may seem absurd to outsiders but the coup government controls most mass media to justify attacks on hostile demonstration and protection of supportive ones.

The Russian presence is not the only problem the military has to deal with. At the start of 2022 Mali defaulted on more of its foreign debt. So far Mali is unable to make payments on $180 million in debts. This is partially due to the reductions in foreign aid because of the ongoing corruption and refusal of the military government to hold elections. The best the military government could do was promise elections in five years. That was answered with major cuts to foreign aid.

The loss of over 20,000 foreign troops (peacekeepers and foreign special operations forces) will cause a lot more violence in Mali and so far the military government seems unconcerned. This sort of mismanagement is why Mali became the center of a growing Islamic terrorist problem in the first place.

Islamic terrorists are a growing problem in Mali. A decade ago, most were in the north but now most of them are south of the Niger river and few are Arabs or Tuareg. African Islamic terrorists believe a religious dictatorship will solve the problem but that has never worked either. Captured Islamic terror group records always include complaints about corruption, and that occasionally makes the news when a terrorist leader absconds with a large amount of money. Islamic terrorism is another form of civil war, by religious zealots against an elected government or, more likely, a dictatorship or military government. Mali’s neighbors have long considered Mali as more of a problem than a helpful neighbor. Now the neighbors will concentrate on isolating themselves from Mali and that will mean seeking some of those 20,000 foreign troops Mali ordered out. Mali now has only about 14,000 troops and paramilitaries, including the thousand from Wagner Group, to handle security previously supplied by 33,000 foreign and Malian troops. Taking security advice from Russia is not a good idea, as Russian discovered in Ukraine. Some members of the Mali military government are having second thoughts if only because the numbers don’t add up to anything that will benefit Mali.

July 27, 2022: In central Mali (Mopti) Islamic terrorists carried out simultaneous against the army in three different locations, leaving fifteen soldiers and three civilians dead. The government says 48 attackers were killed or captured during these clashes. Many Islamic terrorist groups are active in the area, most of them affiliated JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems), the largest Islamic terror group in Mali. Most JNIM attacks are on military convoys. These occur at least once a month. More frequent attacks are directed at local civilians who will not cooperate with the terrorists.

July 22, 2022: In the south (the capital Bamako) Islamic terrorists attacked the main base of the Mali Army outside the capital using two car bombs and gunmen was repulsed. One soldier died while seven attackers were killed and eight captured. This is the closest attack to the capital the Islamic terrorists have ever made. The captured attackers belonged to JNIM and said the attack was a protest against the government use of Wagner Group mercenaries. JNIM also took credit for five smaller attacks on soldiers in five south Mali towns yesterday. These attacks left one soldier dead and fifteen wounded. Some attackers were wounded but no dead bodies were left behind and none of the attackers were captured. These attacks may have been an effort to draw troops away from the main army base outside Bamako.

July 21, 2022: The government suspended the rotation of UN peacekeepers.

July 20, 2022: The spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission was expelled from the country for describing the situation in Mali in terms the military government did not agree with.

July 14, 2022: The government has prohibited the UN from carrying out its annual rotation of peacekeeping troops.

July 10, 2022: The government ordered the arrest of 49 Ivorian soldiers who had arrived at the airport outside the capital as part of the current UN peacekeeper rotation. The government accused the Ivorian peacekeepers of being mercenaries sent to overthrow the military government. The Mali government was using a technicality to detain the Ivorians, who were there to provide security for German peacekeepers in the capital, not join the Ivory Coast Army peacekeeper detachment in the north.

July 5, 2022: In the north (outside Gao) Islamic terrorists used a roadside bomb to attacks a peacekeeper supply convoy. Two peacekeepers died and five were wounded.

June 19, 2022: In the north (outside Kidal) Islamic terrorists used a roadside bomb to attacks a peacekeeper patrol. supply convoy. One peacekeeper died and several were wounded.

June 29, 2022: The UN voted to extend the UN peacekeeping mission for another 12 months.

June 7, 2022: Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations. Russia is under severe economic sanctions because of its recent Ukraine invasion but Mali gets around that by paying Russia in gold. Mali is a major producer of gold and Russia has a large gold stockpile for emergencies. Russia will accept gold for the weapons and Wagner Group contractors. Russia also supplies pilots and maintainers for the eight Russian helicopters Mali has received since 2017. Most of the helicopters are flown by Russian pilots with a Mali co-pilot who is learning how to operate the new helicopters.

Wagner Group operations use Russian methods, which involve terrorizing civilians believed cooperating with Islamic terrorists. Wagner Group operates mainly in central Mali, where, Wagner Group men accompany Mali troops on surprise attacks, often in towns where Islamic terrorists are known to be active. The Russian transport helicopters are often used to carry the ground assault force. The Mali troops speak the local languages and are better able to spot known or suspected Islamic terrorists. The Wagner Group men, most of them veterans of Russian special operations or airborne units, have combat experience and pass that on to the Malian forces. This produces thousands of civilian casualties.

Wagner Group uses kinder and gentler tactics elsewhere in Africa where Wagner is an investor in local raw materials extracting operations as well as providing the security.

 

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